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Special needs celebrated at Night to Shine

BY Kaitlin Gebby - kgebby@chronicle-tribune.com

Thousands of people of all ages enjoyed a night of freedom to be themselves and be independent at Night to Shine, a prom for people with special needs.

Night to Shine was started by the Tim Tebow Foundation three years ago to afford people with mental disabilities the opportunity to experience a normal prom without the fear or worry of feeling different and out of place.

The River Church, located at 749 S. Lenfesty Ave. in Marion, held the event for the second year in a row. Deb St. Clair, the special needs director at Oak Hill High School, started the program at River Church after she was informed by her parents that a prom for people with special needs existed.

“I approached the leaders at the church if they’d like to host the event, and they said yes without hesitation,” St. Clair said.

River Church hosts a special needs program within the church as well. According to Amy Biegel, executive director and youth pastor at River Church, the program pairs church members with trained volunteers to guide them through activities and worship, as well as help adults with special needs in serving roles within the church.

“This program really brings the needs of people with mental disabilities to the forefront,” Biegel said. 

Biegel said the program was a natural fit for the church’s passion for all people, and they learned a lot from their first year.

“You get a grant from the Tim Tebow Foundation for your first year hosting the event, but the next year you have to fundraise and come up with the money,” she said. “We were so passionate about the event, we decided as a church to budget the money ourselves to host Night to Shine, but it became clear that this is something that the entire community wanted to be part of.”

Kelly’s the Florist donated all of the flowers for the event, which they spent the week putting together. Cafeteria staff at Oak Hill schools cooked more than 18 dozen cupcakes, including gluten-free, sugar-free and others to fit special diet needs.

Nearly 300 volunteers from local schools, businesses and universities, in addition to countless donations from local businesses and residents meant River Church was able to go above and beyond for their guests, according to Biegel.

The night began when registered families arrived at River Church around 6 p.m. Parents and family members were ushered into an area to relax, converse, enjoy food, and receive manicures and massages. Meanwhile, guests 14 years-old and older got ready for the night at River Church.

Oak Hill High School Cheerleaders volunteered to do the hair and makeup, which guest Ali Mann said made her feel pretty and special.

Men put on tuxes and were able to get their shoes shined before meeting up with their friends for a red carpet welcome. Afterwards, guests could do karaoke, take pictures in a photo booth, participate in group activities, take a limo ride, or eat before heading out onto the dance floor.

At the end of the evening, all of the guests are crowned king and queen.

St. Clair said the entire evening is to make every person feel like they can be themselves.

“Most people here tonight can’t go out and do something like this,” St. Clair said. “For many of them, it’s their first prom. This event helps them feel free and independent. It makes them feel like they can be themselves, and we’re here to give them a prom that every other kid gets to experience.”